The late 70s certainly brought to cinemas a dearth of “eco-horror” movies because if it wasn’t ants ruining your picnic then it was our eight-legged friends crashing the party, and not only did 1977 witness the horrors of The Kingdom of the Spiders, starring the great William Shatner it also bore witness to a made-for-television titled Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo, a film that pitted Claude Akins and Pat Hingle against a particular nasty arachnid invasion.
In the glut of “Animals Amok” movies it’s clear that there is one species that really seems to have it in for mankind and that would be our friendly neighbourhood spider – or tarantulas depending on which particular species is being portrayed in any given film – and today we will be looking at Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo, another animal invasion film that takes place in a small town. Director Stuart Hagman, a not very prolific filmmaker, helmed this little gem that starts off with a pair of money-hungry pilots, Buddy (Tom Atkins) and Fred (Howard Hesseman), who in an attempt to smuggle a load of coffee beans from Ecuador into the United States end up bringing eight-legged death to a small community. Things start off rocky, with them having to bribe some corrupt federal police and being forced to agree to smuggle a trio of “illegals” so as to pay the bribe, but greedy cops are the least of their problems as the Ecuadoran labourers who loaded the coffee on board their plane did seem to notice all the spiders climbing all over their produce.
To make matters worse, the plane runs into very bad weather which results in the two pilots ignoring the paniced screams of their three “passengers” who are having very close encounters with the spiders, but as if that is not bad enough the script tosses in some engine problems to spice things up and soon our entrepreneurs are forced to make an emergency landing as they pass over the orange-producing town of Finleyville, California. It’s at this point in the movie that we are introduced to our main cast of characters, who all rush out to aid the downed aircraft and the injured pilots. We have Cindy Beck (Deborah Winters) and her fiancé Joe Harmon (Charles Frank), she runs the town’s small airfield but I haven’t a clue what Joe does – other than running around acting like the hero of the picture, his actual position in this town remains very unclear – and along with them is Cindy’s little brother Matthew (Matthew Laborteaux) whose part in this film is to be annoying enough that when he eventually gets killed you’re not too upset about it. Then there is fire department chief Bert Springer (Claude Akins) and the town’s physician, Dr. Hodgins (Pat Hingle), who quickly becomes concerned when people around town start dropping dead. The film does briefly present the deaths as a mystery, with Doc Hodgins suspecting it is a contagion of some kind, but it is quickly revealed to be an invasion of killer spiders and soon our band of heroes is off and running to not only save the town but this year’s orange crop as well.
Because a deadly invasion of spiders isn’t enough conflict the film also provides us with some bonus human drama, first off, we have the prerequisite asshole politician in the form of Mayor Douglas (Bert Remsen) who threatens jail time to anybody who breathes word one about the “spider problem” because it could jeopardize them getting the oranges shipped out on schedule, but an even bigger asshole Rich Finley (Charles Siebert) who is not only having an affair with the wife of the town’s police chief but he also means to make some money off of the spider threat with a little arson – he owns the warehouse the spiders congregate at and if it were to burn down while “fighting the spiders” he’d collect the insurance money – and that he has a completely unironic death should be a surprise to no one. The film eventually staggers to its conclusion when our cast learns that the buzzing sounds of wasps, the spider’s natural enemy, will cause the eight-legged freaks to become paralyzed with fear – Note: This is not actually a thing – which allows our heroes to run in and scoop up the little bastards and dump them in buckets full of alcohol.
• Despite the title of this film being Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo the arachnids in question are actually Brazilian wandering spiders – aka banana spiders.
• An entomologist does correctly identifies them as the Brazilian wandering spider and though he accurately states that “This is the most aggressive and venomous spider in the world!” the only real danger in the way of fatalities would be to that of small children, not full-grown adults.
• We only see a handful of venomous spiders leave the plane crash site but thousands of them infiltrate the warehouse that is storing the town’s oranges, which begs the question “Just how fast can these spiders reproduce?”
• The plane crashed four miles from the warehouse, but the spiders head on a direct line for it, did these deadly arachnids have a map of the area so they knew where to go for good eating?
• Like any post-Jaws film, this “Animals Amok” entry also includes a mayor who wants to ignore the dangers for the sake of the town’s economy, though instead of “We can’t close the beaches, it’s the Fourth of July” we get this idiot mayor worrying about the town’s orange shipment.
• The made-for-television movie Ants! – released the same year – also has a young boy bitten by the title creature but unlike in that film the makers of Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo had the balls to kill off the kid.
There is something intrinsically disconcerting about spiders, with their relentless crawling legs to their multi-faceted eyes their very existence sets many people on edge, and thus films like Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo already have a leg up when it comes to scaring the audience because fear of arachnids is pretty much baked into our DNA, and thus director Stuart Hagman didn’t have to work too hard to give viewers the heebie-jeebies.
Overall, the film is a very well-constructed eco-horror flick that nicely built on its suspense and tension throughout its running time, helped along by a cast that included both veteran movie stars and up-and-coming television actors, all buoyed up nicely by an excellent jazzy score by composer Mundell Lowe. The spiders themselves don’t do much other than look creepy, which is a job they excel at, and while the plot doesn’t so much resolve itself as it does run out of steam – shovelling spiders into pails isn’t all that dramatic – but nevertheless Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo is an effective entry in the “Nature Amok” genre and well worth checking out.
Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo (1977)
Movie Rank - 6.5/10
Spiders have been a cinematic threat for decades with Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo simply being a nice “movie-of-the-week” entry in the subgenre of “eco-horror” but with a great cast at his disposal Stuart Hagman was able to craft a nice little creature feature that really capitalizes on these particular creepy crawlies.